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Wondering About the Future of Pest Management in Ag? Look to Its Students.

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Rows of posters presenting the research of agricultural students and their professors at NEPPSC give a glimpse into the pest management techniques of the future. (DTN photo by Emily Unglesbee)

PHILADELPHIA (DTN) -- Want a sneak peak into the future?

Believe it or not, you can find it in a hotel conference room in downtown Philadelphia this week. There, scientists and students have gathered to present their research for the Northeastern Plant, Pest, and Soils Conference -- a joint meeting of five science organizations focused on weeds, agronomy, and soil science. The presentations give a good sampling of the brave new world of pest management -- and in particular, weed control -- that growers and the industry will soon confront.

So what does it look like? Here are four predictions, based on the research presented this week by ag researchers and their budding scientist students.

PEST MANAGEMENT WILL BE INCREASINGLY DIGITAL AND AUTONOMOUS

Smartphones are becoming farming tools, a trend not lost on Lynn Sosnoskie, a Cornell weed scientist. She presented research evaluating the accuracy of two popular plant-identification apps: iNaturalist and Pl@ntNet. The apps were fairly accurate at identifying images of adult broadleaves, flowers and fruit, Sosnoskie found. But they botched identification of images of the flowering structures of grasses well over half the time.

The apps are handy, but not perfect yet, she determined -- a good summary of the burgeoning world of artificial intelligence. "I recommend my clientele always double-check IDs against a trusted source, e.g. guidebooks, knowledgeable extension staff (and) curated/vetted web sites," Sosnokie concluded.

Another researcher explored the use of drones to apply herbicides. Vijay Singh, a Virginia Tech weed scientist, applied glufosinate to LibertyLink soybeans via remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), targeting Palmer amaranth and morning-glory. Among his many findings on spray deposition and droplet behavior, Singh determined UAVs could provide significantly better weed control than the same application done by backpack sprayer, as long as the right nozzles were used.

Spraying weeds remotely raises the question of how to identify weeds remotely -- another popular topic among the conference's student researchers. While past research has examined how to use sensors to differentiate weeds from the nearby crop, one graduate student from North Carolina State University is using multispectral and hyperspectral sensors to differentiate multiple weed species within a field.

THE HERBICIDE LANDSCAPE WILL BE CROWDED AND COMPLEX

Herbicide resistance was a common theme among the conference's researchers. A Virginia Tech graduate researcher documented suspected glyphosate resistance in lambsquarter populations found in Maryland's Eastern Shore. And a survey of weeds collected from the Texas Blacklands found Italian ryegrass with resistance to multiple herbicides, including one population with three-way resistance to glyphosate, ACCase inhibitors and ALS inhibitors.

Not surprisingly, other students and researchers focused on the next generation of herbicide technology and its management. In preparation for Bayer's XtendFlex soybeans, which will tolerate over-the-top applications of glufosinate, glyphosate and dicamba herbicides, North Carolina State University (NCSU) students scrutinized the efficacy of tank-mixed and sequential applications of glufosinate and dicamba on Palmer amaranth. They found no antagonism, or reduced efficacy, when the herbicides were used jointly.

Others evaluated the response of crops and other plants to dicamba drift, a growing occurrence since dicamba-tolerant soybeans joined the landscape in 2016. NCSU students found planting date of soybeans significantly affected their response to dicamba drift, and Rutger researchers laid out how various vegetable species reacted to exposure to the chemical.

THE INDUSTRY WILL LOOK BEYOND CHEMICALS TO CONTROL WEEDS

Perhaps the most popular topic among the young researchers and their teachers at NEPPSC was how to control weeds without relying solely on herbicides.

"With the rise in herbicide resistance, we think we need to look at alternatives to herbicides," explained Maria Gannett, a Cornell graduate student. "We want to start expanding weed management tools, so we're looking for new things."

Many students explored using the natural microbial communities in the soil to ag's advantage. Gannett discovered that adding carbon, the food of microbes, to the soil of a soybean field allowed microbial populations to grow significantly. As they expanded, these microbes tied up nitrogen in the soil, leaving it unavailable to most weed species, which grew significantly less in the carbon-heavy plots. But the soybeans? As nitrogen-fixers, they did just fine.

Using cover crops to suppress weeds was another common theme. One graduate student from Penn State University examined how fall and spring herbicide programs can co-exist with the use of a rye cover crop to suppress marestail populations. Another group of Penn State researchers examined how planting soybeans into "green" or living rye cover crop affects weed suppression. Virginia Tech scientists found that a cereal rye cover crop was actually more effective at controlling winter annual weeds than a fall application of some herbicides.

One large, multi-state study sorted through a large number of common weeds and documented how much seed they retain at harvest, in preparation for the adoption of harvest weed seed control measures, such as the Harrington Seed Destructor (HSD). Recent field trials have had success with the HSD, according to another presentation by Lovreet Shergill, a scientist with USDA ARS. The machine destroyed well over 95% of weed seed in the fields where it was tested in Maryland and Illinois, proving it can work with American weed species, and may be a viable weed control tool here, he said.

"We are losing herbicide options," Shergill told conference attendees. "There is a lack of herbicide discovery, and herbicide resistance is a growing crisis, so we have to think about other non-chemical tools we can integrate into the system we already have."

WE WILL FACE PESTS WE CANNOT YET IMAGINE

Finally, some of the research presented at the conference hinted at unknowability of crop pests yet to come.

Who could have predicted, for example, the arrival of the spotted lanternfly -- a garishly colored, migratory marvel of an insect that eats a wide range of crops and invaded the mid-Atlantic region in 2014?

Yet here it is, far from its home in Asia, spreading more each year despite active quarantines and threatening multiple industries, particularly horticultural crops and trees. At the conference, small plastic cards with the bug's picture are available with a bolded request: "Scrape These Pests Away!"

With other researchers exploring the potential insect pests of hemp and their impact on CBD and THC levels, one thing seems certain: We can never know for sure what is coming ag's way.

But these students -- and their teachers -- are ready to find answers to whatever may arrive.

See more about the NEPPSC here: https://www.newss.org/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/CZ/ES)

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